For as long as she can remember, Denae King, Ph.D., has been concerned about environmental health. Growing up in Houston, she had a front-row seat to industrial pollution and its effects on people’s well-being, such as a car-crushing facility across the street from her grandparents’ home and the petrochemical company where her grandfather worked before his death.
Motivated by those memories, King forged a career in public health. As part of the Maternal and Infant Environmental Health Riskscape Research Center, King and colleagues hope to reveal the reasons driving disparities in maternal mortality among Black mothers, who are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women.
“The impact of environmental exposures on maternal and infant mortality is not fully understood,” King said. “This project is helping us understand how some of the contaminants our communities are exposed to, such as lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), affect mothers and their babies.”
The center’s research includes participants from the same Houston community where King spent much of her childhood. The area is burdened by legacy contamination sites, King said, and contains a suspected cluster of birth defects and clusters of adult and childhood cancers.
“This work is still in its early stages, but one of our recent accomplishments is that we were able to collaboratively develop a community air monitoring program with our community partner, Coalition of Community Organizations (COCO), and the Environmental Defense Fund,” King said. “COCO purchased low-cost air monitors that measure particulate matter, and we worked collaboratively with COCO’s block captain program to strategically place them in locations across the Fifth Ward community to identify air pollution sources.”
Once they have more data, they’ll be a step closer to understanding local sources of pollutants and how they may impact maternal and infant health.